World's first genetically modified babies?

A Chinese scientist's claims of creating the first genetically engineered babies have shocked the scientific community. But is this true, and what are its implications?

Theo Turvill
4th December 2018
Image from CC0 Creative Commons

A line has been crossed that shouldn’t be crossed. It’s very disturbing, it's inappropriate. This is huge. These are just a few shocked reactions from the scientific community to the announcements made by Chinese scientist He Jiankui, that he had successfully used the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to modify DNA of two embryos, immunising them against the HIV virus, and in doing so creating the world's first genetically modified super-babies. Jiankui claims to have submitted his work to an undisclosed academic journal, though it is unclear whether or not he is telling the truth as the results are yet to be independently verified or peer-reviewed.

The risks of the procedure are unknown to science. The CRISPR technology is still considered to be in its infancy and for all anyone knows, the infants could face a multitude of unknown genetic complications throughout their lives.

The gene He edited-out, called CRISPR-CCR5, is crucial in the correct function for the immune system, and removing it could lead to a susceptibility of other ailments such as the West Nile virus and influenza.

The associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, is reported to be feeling proud of his work despite the lash back form the scientific community, stating: "For this specific case, I feel proud. I feel proudest, because they had lost hope for life” (CNN).

The father of the twins whom is believed to carry HIV was very pleased to be chosen for the trial and promised to work hard for his family.

While Jiankui has not necessarily broken any international regulations, he has certainly carried out a produce assumed to be simply too misunderstood to be carried out responsibly and his use of CRISPR represents a clear break with convention. While China is far more driven to “incentivize their scientists to move faster and be bolder” (Victor J. Dzau, President of the Institute of Medicine at the US National Academy of Medicine) this will surely tarnish the already sketchy reputation for ethical scientific procedure.

Whether the Chinese authorities or even the University He worked at can be blamed for allowing this is unclear, as He may have deftly side-stepped out of their view and carried out the experiments without their knowledge.

Mysteriously, the whereabouts of the Chinese scientist are currently unknown, ominously coinciding with Chinese authorities opening and investigation into He’s activities.

All this negative attention now being focused on regulation surrounding scientific endeavours has sparked calls for a globally binding code of conduct. Increased legislation will slow down scientific advancement, but would also potentially stop things like this from happening.

As honourable as his intentions may be, the selfish and reckless nature of He’s actions, not just for the future lives of the infants, but also for the scientific community, are opening up debates about the ethical implications for the CRISPR technology.

He was certainty reckless in his actions though his work, if successful may prove to be some of the most influential of our time.

For me, his actions are justifiable. He has given a family a chance to enjoy life, and through his risk he has given the rest of us the opportunity to benefit from his discoveries. Gene editing holds incomparable potential and who knows how many years we would have had to have waited to see anything earthshattering done with this technology. This is all said with a pinch of salt, though I am hopeful his bold actions will be rewarded.

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